Jane and George quietly play together in the summer sun until it comes to an abrupt halt with one scream. Mom races out the front door and finds Jane clutching her bleeding knee and pointing her dagger-sharp finger at her brother. “He pushed me!” Jane wails. George stands at a distance holding Jane’s favorite toy, guilty as charged.
With plans for disciplining George, Mom turns first to Jane. The strawberry scrape needs a bandage, but Jane’s weeping exceeds her physical pain. Mom gently soothes her, knowing the tears are about far more than her surface wound. Jane hurts for reasons beyond what she can understand or articulate as a child. She is crushed over broken trust, deception, and selfishness from a beloved brother when she expected peace, protection, and care. Jane’s mom knows to provide more than antiseptic and a band aid. She comforts and soothes, signaling to Jane that her pain is important; the injustice matters, even on a 3-year-old scale.
Like Jane’s mom, many of us know how to affirm another’s invisible wounds when it comes to everyday episodes. But once we reach the realm of the uncommon—or perhaps the uncommonly spoken—our ability to connect with what lies beyond the physical quickly diminishes. This is especially true when the family of faith is confronted with sexual abuse. Whether it’s a church member healing from abuse by a nonmember or the devastation of a church member(s) harming another, brothers and sisters often stand uncertain, even paralyzed, with how to respond to the victim.
By understanding the interplay between the church’s response to sexual abuse and a victim’s inner world, the family of faith can strategically support survivors in their journey toward Christ-centered healing and restoration.
Silence isn’t always golden
There has been a flood of reports in the last decade of previously unknown cases of sexual abuse within the church. Without focusing on any one instance, the prevalence presses the question: why is reporting so important? Two obvious answers generally come to mind. First, reporting sexual abuse to church leaders, parents/guardians, and the authorities provides the best guarantee that the abuse will stop. Protecting the victim and initiating the process where the victim receives justice must be our first priority.
Second, in almost all situations reporting sexual abuse of a minor to the authorities is legally required. Reporting requirements vary from state to state, and all adults, and ministers especially, must be aware of and comply with the reporting requirements in their state regarding abuse of a child or disabled or elderly person. But even absent these reporting requirements, we can all acknowledge the gospel-affirming message that is sent to the world at large when churches and ministers uphold the law that seeks to protect the weak and powerless. Both considerations are vital when surveying the landscape of abuse.
Yet equally important is what the church’s positive response to sexual abuse communicates to the victim. The individual effects of abuse vary widely, but common threads run throughout each instance of abuse, including the spoken and unspoken messages an abuser sends to the victim. One prevalent message is, “You do not matter. Your preference doesn’t matter. Your safety doesn’t matter. Your voice crying out ‘No!’ doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. Your dignity doesn’t matter. The abuser’s desire for pleasure and control is all that matters.”
But when a church family steps up to report the abuse, it communicates to the survivor, “You do matter! Your safety, your voice, your pain, and your dignity as an image-bearer of God unquestionably matter!” When a church is willing to risk whatever is necessary to stand for justice in God-ordained ways, a genuine faith in the power of the cross shines forth. It’s a chance for both the victim and the congregation to see firsthand that there is no type of brokenness, shame, or calamity that the blood of Christ can’t heal. In fact, the love of Christ compels us beyond our comfort or reputation. And when the church stands against such injustice, it paves the way for survivors to (gradually) overcome another powerful lie—that their abuse doesn’t matter to God.
The power of presence
Once abuse is reported, the process of healing can begin. The extent of the process will vary from person to person, but it will always be a journey—one that is easily forgotten over time by the church family. To be clear, a survivor’s story of abuse should always be theirs to tell when, where, and with whom they choose. During the abuse, personal control was ripped away from the victim, to their harm and shame. A vital part of their restoration is for a survivor to have control of exposing those very painful memories on their terms. Even with healing in mind, holding group prayer meetings where unnecessary details of a survivor’s tragedy are shared, or urging them to share their testimony when they are not ready and willing, is detrimental to the healing process.
Instead, a church family can extend the deeply compassionate and powerfully restorative love of Christ by preparing some of its members to be available and present with the survivor in due time. Often, words are not needed when spending time with the survivor. Rather, a willingness to sit, listen, cry with, and comfort your brother or sister who is healing is a sensitive way to demonstrate the Lord’s gentle and patient care. There are days when the journey may seem insurmountable to the survivor, as if the pain, sadness, shame, and grief will never end. As the church strategically remains present in his or her life for as long as it takes, however, it is a visible reminder of Christ’s promise to never leave or forsake us.
Gospel truth reframed
A vital part of the healing from sexual abuse is exposing the lies communicated through the abuse and replacing them with the truth. The process is extensive, requiring much nuance, and is ideally spearheaded by one who is trained and experienced with the dynamics of sexual abuse. However, we should not underestimate the powerful healing that comes when those brothers and sisters who are present with a survivor speak the truth to them with wisdom and discernment.
Not surprisingly, the enemy’s greatest tactic is to utilize the abuse to undermine the heart of the gospel. More specifically, victims will often feel like the abuse is their fault. Sometimes this lie is stated explicitly during the abuse. At other times, it’s communicated in subtle, manipulative ways. The damage that so often reverberates in the mind of a survivor is that something about them is irreversibly wrong. It’s a vague, untouchable feeling. And it often runs to their core, even affecting the way they hear the gospel message.
On many occasions, a believing survivor will agree with the reality that they are a sinner, with nothing apart from Christ’s blood to commend them to God. Yet, inside them a voice says, “There’s something more wrong with you than with everyone else.” In fact, some survivors even wonder if it’s so shameful, so horrific that it’s beyond the power of the cross. Sorting through the realities of original sin versus the perpetrator’s sin is a delicate part of the healing journey. But with proper awareness, those who are supporting the survivor can be prepared to speak the gospel of grace and truth with sensitivity. At such times, the church is positioned by the Lord to bring life instead of perpetuating a lie that stands ready to snuff out the gospel of grace in the victim’s heart.
Underreporting of sexual abuse is a stark reality, both in the community at large and within the church. God’s people need to encourage proper reporting by being ready and able to stand with survivors throughout the whole healing process, speaking the truth, and ministering the gospel again and again. It is an opportunity for the church to show the truth we so readily proclaim—that there is no darkness that is deeper and no pain that is greater than the redeeming, healing power of Christ.
Standing with the abused comes with a cost. At times, it may cost us our reputation. It will certainly cost us our time, energy, and comfort. And often it will bring emotional strain, temptation toward fear, and, in some cases, an entrance into the dark corners of depravity where we hoped never to venture. Yet, as we take the hand of survivors and walk with them in their darkness, slowly leading them to the light of Christ’s healing, we embody the very command of Christ to his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).